Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sister Act - a curmudgeonly review

Let me begin with my disclaimer: I can be an out-of-control curmudgeon when my mood dictates it. So if you read my review of Sister Act and are offended, tell yourself that you’ve been curmudgeoned . . . nothing more.

I tend to avoid high school and community drama, partly because I’ve been there and gradually tired of the tedium of it—the memorization of lines and blocking, entrances and exits, the building of sets, the painting, the sawing, the cajoling of hormone-laced actors, and the practicing, practicing for days and weeks for one or two nights of sheer terror. I’ve helped manage back stage for musicals like The Pirates of Penzance, been a Chinese passenger on HMS Pinafore, played Annas in Jesus Christ, Superstar and the uncle in Wizard of Oz, for instance. I’ve “taught” Hamlet about 15 times, The Crucible and Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet half a dozen times each. I even attempted Oedipus Rex with a Grade 12 class. Once.

I’ve seen Christopher Plummer and Cynthia Dale on the Stratford stage. Wow!

But hey, you say. That’s unfair. And you’re right. To sing and perform like the cast of RJC’s Sister Act did last night while you’re still just learning the rudiments of vocal music and dramatic performance is truly remarkable. Soloists were competent beyond their years, chorus numbers were musical and well-rehearsed, and if teenage actors tend to do a bit too much “standing around between lines,” that’s to be expected and is easily forgiven; physical awkwardness dominates in adolescence; hands never know what feet are doing. The confidence and energy overflowed.

My hat is unreservedly off to the RJC staff for motivating and preparing what had to be over half of the student body to pull this off, and to do it so well.

BUT! HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Grease have at least one thing in common (and that with opera, the original musical theatre genre); the plots tend to be drivel. Sister Act out-drivels most of them and for those of you who protest that these plays were never meant to be deep, that they are venues for catchy songs, farcical humour and copious laughter, I concede that you have a point. I like farce too, even John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks still breaks me up. But Sister Act is not quality farce; it sinks along with much of American sensibility to the tiresome “humour” of gag lines and double entendres. (Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name.” Rumour has it that so many corpses turned over in their graves at this gag line that the Eigenheim Church cemetery resembles a plowed field this morning.)

When the director felt it necessary before the performance began to warn the audience that they might be shocked by Act One, but that . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . there would be a 180º turn in Act Two, I knew that we were witnessing a classical error in dramatic performance, ie. telling the audience what the play means. Not good. Unfortunately, the 180º turn is . . . what? A timid policeman finds out that he can be “the guy,” a fame-seeking singer decides to give up her selfish dream for a nobler cause, a convent of nuns learns how to sing overnight and becomes a jiving, chorus-line “ACT?”

Did I just not get it?

OK. It’s really hard to find suitable material for a mandatory, year-end musical to accompany graduation celebrations in an Anabaptist Christian School in middle Saskatchewan in 2017. Granted. I may prove to be wrong, but by the audience’s “standing ovation” response (they always do this; our kids flat-out amaze us from time to time) Sister Act with all its flaws did what the school needs; endear itself again to its constituency as a Christian, junior, liberal arts school that knows how to do education in this era and is not afraid to take some risks, be innovative. It’s a cracking good school with, probably, more potential for greatness than we deserve.

And here’s a thing. Teach kids to throw mud on a potter’s wheel, help them train their hands to mold and shape with both gentleness and firmness, and so what if all that occurs to them at the moment is to fashion an ash tray? Perhaps, in another day and when they are all grown up, mastered skills will enable them to create a new, exciting, Grecian Urn.

. . . When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." - John Keats

Meanwhile, would someone out there start to work on a really good musical that can be performed at a school like RJC without the necessity of an apologetic disclaimer preceding it?? The world is full of amazing plots, magnificent harmonies, hilarity and joy. Surely we have a really good play in our collective consciousness.

The Midnight Trials of J.J. Thiessen, perhaps?

Thursday, June 08, 2017

How it's Made: hammers and sentences.

Made in Rosthern, ca 1907
I took a History of English course at the University of Alberta long, long ago. The prof was a linguist and the approach was consistent with evolutionary thinking. Anyone in the class who rejected biological evolution would still come away from that class believing in linguistic evolution. It became so darned obvious under the tutelage of someone like Dr. Cantrememberhisname.

There’s a program on the Discovery channel that I like to watch: How it’s Made, it’s called, and it follows the manufacturing processes of everyday objects beginning with raw materials and ending with, say, a hammer or a snowmobile. We can probably be forgiven for seeing a hammer that “just is” without paying attention to it’s origins; you just can’t know everything! But in that class at the U of A where we looked at our English language with the intensity of How it’s Made, I gained an appreciation for the fluidity of language, the way it begins and the ways in which it changes, usually in concert with changes in other aspects of our cultures: our ecology, our economics, our migrations.

(A tidbit: vulgar meant the common people early on in it’s life. It’s equivalent in understanding today might be “the middle class.” From it’s Latin base to the present, it’s evolved to be used to describe low, mean, highly objectionable persons and actions. How it went from its reference to the peasant class to its use in describing despicable persons and events would in itself make for an interesting cultural study. ((An aside to the tidbit: the Vulgate Bible was not a translation for rude, mean people; it was a translation for common use.)))

Historically, people didn’t have the benefit of scholarship like that of Dr. Cantrememberhisname, or of TV programs to explain How it’s Made. But some were understandably curious about how it was that when some people spoke, they couldn’t understand them, and when they themselves spoke, others heard gibberish. At some time, the myth of the confounding of language at the Babel Tower was given birth, a myth that gospel writers reversed in the de-confounding at Pentecost. Taken together, they illustrate that what went wrong is being made right with the coming of Christ and the upside-down nature of his teaching.

Understanding the story of languages—the How it’s Made of our mother tongues particularly—is far more important than knowing how the handle of a hammer is given its shape. In the case of the hammer, it doesn’t really matter if we imagine it to have arrived intact in its present form; lack of facility in and knowledge of the nuances in language starts wars, ends marriages, breaks communities up into parcels of misunderstanding.

We taught language facility in an earlier age—rhetoric and oratory, debating, grammar and penmanship—as the important subjects in school. Students were required to master basics of Latin (from which much of English vocabulary and grammar derive) and possibly some Greek as well. We deemed it important that people learn to express their thoughts well and that they comprehend the thoughts of others, well expressed. We understood how important it is to be able to write legibly, clearly and precisely; how important it is to be able to read and comprehend clear and precise writing; how crucial an adequate and growing vocabulary can be to all human interaction.

We once understood that language knowledge and facility are key to pretty much everything.

(A recent bit of satire chastised Barack Obama for deliberately humiliating President Trump by speaking in complete sentences with an actual verb in each.)

 Pointing-and-grunting might be language enough when we’re digging a ditch, but the demands of the times cry out for language more fluent, more precise, more poetic than that.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Put Values in my pipe and smoke them.

Food is still far and away the best cure for hunger. 

I didn’t count, but I think that as I watched the Conservative leadership convention last night, I must have heard the expressions “core values” and “Canadian core values” a hundred times or more. Brad Trost and Kellie Leitch hung their hopes of winning the leadership on convincing Tory membership that there exists a common Canadian value system and that we must be vigilant guardians of that system. 

No real mention was made of where these values come from and what actions they precipitate. Are they Christian imperatives? Were they handed down to each new wave of immigrants by the indigenous elders who would know because they’d occupied this land for thousands and thousands of years? Are they a natural outgrowth of gluttony on American television fare? Are they a consequence of our northern geography and climate which makes us robust lovers of life and ardent conservationists? Whence came these values we supposedly all hold because we’re Canadian?

Maybe it’s an ingredient in our beer that’s always been produced using only water from fresh, cold mountain streams.

Let’s make no mistake. Canadian values were “shot to hell” when the first European set foot on this soil, planted a flag, claimed the land for some shallow, belly-scratching foreign king and declared the indigenous inhabitants to be heathens and savages and therefore unworthy of the land God had provided for them. If there is a “set” or “system” of values held by Canadians, it’s in that reality that we ought to be looking for at least one source.

We use the values word too loosely; we confuse it with policy. Some would claim that opposition to giving women the choice to abort a pregnancy or not arises from their value of respect for life. You can’t really preach that position without implying that the policy of giving women choice in the matter signals that lawmakers who enacted the policy of choice don’t value life. So if the law regarding abortion is favoured by 65-70% of the population, how then can a Conservative policy on the subject be labeled a “Canadian value?” Well, it apparently can be if you’re running for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada in 2017!

But let’s consider that what were touted as values at the convention were words, words, words, and nothing but words. The authenticity of a claim to own values is not shown in blather, it’s in the actions and choices that values precipitate. Person A earns a modest income and often teeters on the brink of bankruptcy because he donates so much of his means to an organization that treats eye problems in an African country. Person B earns a modest income but hoards his means, spends his time on the computer looking for the best return on his savings. Their actions derive from different value sets. Both are Canadian. They both live on our street. They curl on the same team.

There’s a lot we do and/or tolerate as Canadians that insults my values—and yours, I’m sure. I’m also certain that they’re not the same things for you as for me. Martial parades, policemen in uniform, the eulogizing of our soldiers at sports events, all these raise my hackles because I’ve had the idea instilled in me going back at least 50 generations that true peace can’t be won through the application of force and fear. In the light of my values on the subject, making and/or brandishing an AK47 seems not only repulsive but also stupid, a product of a fixation that is naïve, self-destructive. But I have coffee with people who may well value the idea that our freedom, our way of life depends on the ability to engage successfully in warfare.

The other emphasis of the convention that struck me was the oft-repeated, blatant declaration that this was about 2019 and choosing the leader and adopting the strategy that would defeat Justin Trudeau and his Liberals in the next election. The NHL draft with its competition for acquiring hot, new prospects came to mind.

There’s no harm in talking about, comparing values. But when we do, we ought to be looking at what it is that we do, and working backwards to determine what there is about us that makes us do what we do. That determination will describe our true values. Say you believe in protecting God’s creation while throwing your plastic waste into the garbage can? Think again. Then tell me if you value conservation over convenience. Say you value the admonition to “love your neighbour as yourself” while protesting the reception of refugees from Syria? I don’t think so.

Could be that our blather on our greatness as Canadians is only blather: perhaps our real Canadian values are more like dog eat dog, exploit creation while you can, save up for yourself treasure on earth, to the strongest go the spoils and get as much as you can for as little effort as possible. Try running for the leadership of the CPC on that values-laden platform!

So here’s a secret: it wasn’t our values that brought us to whatever greatness we can claim, it was our luck in landing on a part of the globe where creation has provided far more resources than would be required to sustain us. It’s only that that separates us from Bangladesh, or Nicaragua, or Chad. Were values the measure of our greatness, I fear we’d be judged on the values that guided us to be chintzy and selfish in the disposal of our surplus in a world where whole populations could survive on the food we discard, where whole communities of Canadians are destined to live their lives in abject poverty.

It’s time to put that tobacco in our pipes and inhale deeply. (This is a metaphor; don’t smoke unless you place little value on your health.)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Hand over your DNA!

Are you my ancestory?? is the website. The smiling face on the home page is said to belong to a satisfied customer who is 38% West European, 24% Scandinavian, 16% Irish, and 11% Greek. (Hmmm. This only adds up to 89%, wonder what part of this poor guy is missing!) You could get your racial/ethnic mix tested for only $129 Canadian. There are many other websites as well that offer to trace your genetic origins based on a swab you send in. 

I’m not a geneticist; not even close. But I have to admit that I’m skeptical about how one can be genetically Greek, for instance. Japanese, Scandinavian, British are neither ethnic nor racial designations, surely these appellations link to citizenship, which has no genetic component. If I think of my ancestry, I’m sure a genetic test would not indicate “Canadianess,” I’m likely nearly 100% West European, a piece of information that’s totally useless. (It might be useful if the genes that most West Europeans carry also figure in a physical condition that could kill me, something like gereonteritical europeanensis—don’t look this up; it’s fake news.)

Obviously, the retailers of genetic ancestry services have grouped and named genomic categories in such a way that the appearance of meaningful information is present. But we all know about retailing that it’s not about public service, it’s about profit. And if we’re the kind of people who can be enticed into buying a basket of sheep manure in Christmas wrapping for a mere $129 Canadian, well, you get the drift.

My brother ordered an EPP heraldic crest; what he got for his $10.00 was as phony as the Donald Trump Fact Society (DTFS). What somebody out there got was $10.00 minus the cost of a piece of xeroxed paper, a cheap envelope and a postage stamp. Sell this as a remedy for low self esteem to 10,000 people and you’ve made . . . well, you do the math.

We still put a lot of stock in the relative worth of racial, ethnic, religious, language and national origins. Yet none of these are predictors of our quality as creative, honourable, faithful, peace-loving human beings in a sea of other, almost-identical humans. Truth is, one can brag over coffee about being 20% Caucasian, 20% Native American, 20% Oriental and 40% genetically sprung from Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Thomas Edison, Florence Nightingale and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow . . . and still be a total jackass. 

It’s happened.

Or one can count Genghis Khan, marauding Huns and Joseph Stalin in ones genetic ancestry and still be the one who develops a cure for cancer while fighting AIDS in the jungles of England and writing romantic poems with lots of trees and birds in them, and constructed in perfect sonnet form.

Genetic DNA may well determine body build, appearance, propensity to be vulnerable to certain health issues, etc. I guess I'm more interested in spiritual DNA, cultural DNA, educational DNA, nutritional DNA, etc.; those precursors that actually make us what we are to our families, friends, community.  

(If you wish, I can advise you on better ways to flush away $129. Or if you can’t decide among the millions of “better ways,” send it to me and I’ll invest it for you. I could make you very, very rich and if not, $129 is no great loss . . .

. . . eh?)

Just hope you're never faced with something like, "I suspect your 17.5% Kurdish; your nose gives it away. Let me swab the inside of your cheek! It'll probably also tell me whether or not you are likely to become a terrorist!"

Monday, January 09, 2017

Let's put our flags down and talk.

Driftwood at Las Lajas

The Washington Times in March of 2016 reported on a speech President Obama gave to Argentinian students. In it,  he was basically making the point that the hard-line choice between capitalism or socialism need not be their only options when visualizing their future politic. He went on to say that under Castro’s communism, Cuba was able to realize good education and health care for all Cuba’s citizens, but that the same system proved unable to develop a decent, working economy. Similarly—although the capitalist market place economies have produced huge economic growth—modifications have had to be made in order to ensure that citizens benefit from these results.

His point was: look for choices that work in your place and time, and don’t be tied to an ideological allegiance to either extreme.

There is, of course, a large anti-Obama cohort in the USA and any number of websites use this speech and some references to a friend who voted for a communist candidate in college to allege that Obama is, in fact, a communist. (See and search “Obama is a communist” to access the gist of that discussion.) One irony is that the American constitution guarantees freedoms that would certainly allow anyone to legitimately hold to a political philosophy that is socialist and to campaign in that direction, so how can being a socialist automatically make one un-American? Similarly, the attempts to prove Obama to be a Muslim (as a condemnation) defy the same American constitution's guarantees of freedom of religion.

The notion that America is a capitalist, Christian place and must defend itself against any threat by other economic or religious alternatives is a delusion. Although the economies in North America largely operate on free market principles, the practice of providing health care at state expense, supporting child-raising with government subsidies, the provision of education at taxpayers’ cost, support of the poor through social welfare programs, all these fall under a “socialistic” rubric. Not to mention that governments regulate and tax corporations—the scope of marketplace freedom is not unlimited.

We live under mixed economies in North America—not capitalist, not socialist, but we have generally come to do what works for us in our time and place. That was exactly Obama’s point in his speech to the students. The USA leans more toward the capitalist extreme than Canada, but neither country can boast of being a bastion of either extreme position; we will continue to find the mix that works for us. Sweden leans more toward what’s sometimes called the ‘granny state’ than either of us. It seems to work for them.

One lesson history should have taught us is that attempts to impose either the pure capitalist or the pure socialist economies have always been disastrous. Both systems, when left unmodified, produce elites that either through political-party status or through the accumulation of obscene wealth produce ever- increasing inequality. Both systems unmodified produce an upper class and an underclass. Both systems tend to decay as inequality mounts: citizen participation decreases; cynicism and non-cooperation turns to active protest, even sabotage; citizens whose allegiances veer toward either the left or right turn on each other, blame each other for their perceived problems. In short, community and the community spirit seeps away until national goodwill is badly damaged or gone.

The Soviet Union breaks down, the Roman Empire collapses, Tiananmen Square protests are crushed, the 2008 economic crisis in the USA sees taxpayers blackmailed into rescuing irresponsible bankers, North American politics is polarized as never before, Greece and Spain verge on economic collapse, Brexit happens.

Latin America has had more than its share of right-wing dictators, doctrinaire communist dictators, bloody uprisings, foreign interference and failed coups. Obama was advocating that students put down any flag-waving, ideological biases and work together in negotiating what mix will work in their country at this time. It’s exactly what’s needed all over America; it’s the only approach with any real chance of long-term success.

Unless your definition of success is a full-scale, fight-to-the-death showdown in the OK Corral. That could be fun too.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Tanker, pipeline, tanker, etc.

I didn’t know until today that a major crude oil pipeline crosses Panama from the Pacific to the Carribean just south of where I’m writing this. Reading about the pipeline reminded me that a cross- mountain pipeline development (Kinder-Morgan) has been approved to increase capacity for transporting oil from Alberta to tidewater at Vancouver. When the pipeline here was completed in 1982, a road was built connecting the two oceans, a road we traveled a year ago to visit a friend in Bocas del Toro. I noticed then a large, white pipe exposed where it crossed ravines and rivers and buried—I presumed—where it didn’t. I took it to be an aquaduct.

Originally, the pipeline facilitated the transportation of crude from Valdez, Alaska to the Gulf Coast refineries in the USA. Up to 20 tankers a day carried the oil to the terminal on the Pacific side of Panama from where it was pumped across the isthmus and reloaded onto tankers at Bocas del Toro on the Carribean side. It makes for a mind-boggling potential for spills.

The Panama Canal has affected the practicality of the tanker/pipeline/tanker sequence for moving crude, but the pipeline has been adapted for forward/reverse shipment and still moves oil between the USA and Ecuador as well as from Venezuela to the Pacific

Back in 1982, scant attention was paid to environmental impact, and “PTP [Petroterminal de Panama S.A.] has applied little restraint in construction and operations of the pipeline with consideration to the environment. The pipeline project "was approved and completed in 1981–1982 before submission of an environmental impact assessment". ( The pipeline crosses the Panamanian Cordillera and both as a result of it and the road construction required to facilitate its construction and servicing, there’s been a marked disruption to delicate ecosystems, soil erosion, etc.

You can take a visual tour of the pipeline courtesy of Petroterminal de Panama S.A. by clicking here.

Friday, December 30, 2016

A few days on Taboga


Taboga Express Ferry.
Families trading the grime of Panama
For the sweltering beaches
Of Taboga.

We walked Taboga’s narrow street today,
Almost to the end and back.
This is some of what we saw:

A mother tormenting her toddler,
Walking ahead too fast for the little one
To keep up.
Crying, crying rage.

Four men under the hood of a pickup truck,
(One of only three or four on the island)
Tools, parts scattered about,
Perplexed, resigned expression of a listener to
A voluble, mechanical sermon from a man drinking
Coca Cola through a straw.

A dim church
A clutch of people praying.
New construction, crumbling ruins.
Beach girls wearing little,
Eight drunken young men
Singing, dancing, shouting, making sure the world knows
They exist.

Remains of a shipwreck.

Balboa may have been here,
But I doubt it.
1510. Step father of the Latin in Latin America.
Made it to the blue, blue Pacific
for which
Countryman Pedro Arias de Ávila ordered his head chopped off.

Also a painter, writer was here,
Anita McAndrews, born 1924.
Died 2005 in Newport,
Memorialized on a tarnished plaque
Above the beach.


On the black horizon,
A freighter resting with lights twinkling,
For a rendezvous with the locks of
The Panama Canal.

And in the distance, faintly,
The skyline of Panama City.
Henry Morgan, I recall, was there, 1671,
(Panama City, that is)
Burned it to the ground
After the raping and pillaging was done.

Taboga Express Ferry.
Families escaping the grime of Panama
For the magnificent beaches
Of Taboga.

        I ate two fish tacos, papas fritas and half a tomato
      With a cold beer to wash it down:
      Balboa Cerveza – $1.75 US.
      (I actually prefer Corona, a Mexican beer
      But it’s a dollar more.)